On Our Mind: Black History Month

Black History Month Essay: Destination Paris 2020

by Florence Ladd

While packing my household goods and clothes for shipping, I am interrupted frequently by telephone calls from a vast network of friends. “Are you really moving abroad?” “Is it wise at your age?” “Your friends are here. How will you find such good friends there?” “Are you really giving up your lovely Cambridge apartment?” “Do you realize how much Paris has changed?” “Why move now when we’re making progress on racial matters here?”

I am in sound health, of sound mind, and at age eighty-eight, if not now – when? My third and last husband of thirty-five years died six months ago. My only child, poet/musician Michael Ladd, has lived in Paris since 2003. He and his translator wife, Fanny, live in the 9th arrondissement with their two children. I want a closer connection to my adolescent grandchildren. Weekly visits via Zoom are not entirely satisfying. And admittedly, I want relief from my profound emotional involvement in the struggle for racial justice and my distress about political responsibility and civility in this country.

The circumstances of my moving usually convince doubters that the move is necessary, indeed, inevitable. The move is not only inevitable, it seems preordained. On my twelfth birthday in June 1944, I told my parents that I intended to go to Paris before I turned twenty. Neither my father nor my mother had ever been abroad. I believe Dad was amused by my imagination and, at the same time, proud of my ambition. Mom took me seriously; she also took me shopping for a Moroccan leather shoulder bag for the future trip abroad.

My attention had been drawn to Paris by broadcasts during World War II. On radio, Paris was described as a prime city of dramatic events in the European theater. It is also likely that my interest was influenced by what I read of “Negroes” in Paris in our household newspapers, The Afro-American and Pittsburgh Courier. These weekly papers featured articles about black literary figures, journalists, actors and musicians in Paris. I was fascinated by photographs of Josephine Baker, whose designer gowns, plumes and stories fueled my Paris fantasies.

In my junior year at Howard University, I applied for a travel fellowship. A psychology major, I proposed “observing psychological test procedures in clinics for children in France and Switzerland.”  I was awarded a fellowship, given additional funds from parents, and a letter of introduction from my advisor, Professor James A. Bayton to Professor Henri Wallon at the Sorbonne. 

In May 1952, aboard the M/S Nelly, the shoulder bag at my hip, I waved to my parents who returned the wave from a pier in New York harbor. I was not yet twenty and on my way to Paris. The nine-day crossing on a ship of college and university students afforded time to share stories of preparations for the journey, maps, family photographs, clothes and to practice my French. We disembarked at Le Havre. From there, I took a train to Paris.  I had the Paris address of a classmate’s older sister, Lunette Cato. I located Lunette in a gloomy student hotel on rue Cujas in the 5th arrondissement. We shared a double room. We also shared the only toilet on our floor and made appointments with the desk clerk for once-a-week baths. Paris, at that time, was recovering from Nazi occupation, wartime horrors and other hardships. I appreciated the advantage of not having had that war cross the Atlantic.  

At the Sorbonne, I presented my letter of introduction to the venerable, bearded Professor Wallon. He read it and on it he wrote: Dr. Nadine Galifret-Granjon, Hôpital Henri Roussel, along with a street address. I was being forwarded to another psychologist, a woman based at a clinic, which I found after a lengthy walk along streets that seemed endless. 

The clinic's receptionist presented me, along with the letter, to Dr. Galifret-Granjon. With a warm smile, alert blue eyes, and lyrical voice, she welcomed me. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties, a very mature age from my nineteen-year-old perspective. In French, she explained that she and others at the clinic were engaged in research on dyslexia. This much I understood. When she realized I was unable to follow her rapid speech, she slowed and in English began an inquiry into my competence. Immediately, she discovered that my French was inadequate; that I knew very little about child psychology, and nothing at all about psychological testing or dyslexia. She asked a few more questions and learned that I also knew nothing about cuisine, wine, contemporary art, or European politics; and that I was misinformed about Communism and unaware of existentialism. Her eyes filled with pity; at the same time, her smile broadened. At that moment, I became her project! 

As we toured the clinic, she introduced me to her colleagues and students, with obvious enthusiasm about the arrival of an American student -- a black American sent to France by a black university. She was intrigued; and I was flattered, although apprehensive about the prospect of being an observer in the clinic; and even more apprehensive about having my shortcomings observed. I was given a schedule of cases to monitor.

Nadine (with her permission, I used her first name) also proposed a schedule of cultural and social events to take in after clinic hours. On several occasions, she invited me to join her and her colleagues for an apéritif. She facilitated my comprehension of restaurant menus and wine lists; and she improved, that is, corrected my French. She recommended museum exhibitions, films, and concerts; took me to lectures on Communism, and urged me to attend political demonstrations. My cultural and political education was expanded and enriched tremendously under her guidance. [She smoked cigarettes. I had been advised to take a carton of Camels abroad—useful currency in post-war Paris. She called Camels les cigarettes reactionaires and introduced me to blue packaged Gauloise.] 

At the clinic, I also observed Nadine. Her professional style was impeccable. She was precise and clear in her conversations with colleagues. With children who came for observation and tests, she was kind, supportive, and reassuring. After work hours, at cafés she was an uncompromising intellectual who debated ideas with authority and confidence in the company of men and other women. She became important to me as a model of professional womanhood.

To be sure, growing up in segregated Washington, D.C., I had encountered other professional women – all black. My mother, an elementary school teacher, was my first and nearest model of professionalism. I admired many women teachers in the public schools I attended. At Howard I had a few women professors, but none in psychology. Our family pediatrician was a woman. In those relationships, I was not accorded treatment as an adult with ideas that mattered. That my recognition of my maturity and awakening of my intellectual being occurred in Paris explains, in part, my early attachment to the city.

In 1952 Paris my skin color was a distinguishing feature. With few African American women there, my race was an asset. It offered occasions for conversations with Parisians curious -- in a kindly fashion -- about my experience of segregation and discrimination. Strangers, recognizing my race and foreignness, frequently asked, “D’où êtes vous?” When I replied Washington, D.C. or America or, as I began to say, les États Unis, I was drawn into sidewalk and café discussions about the treatment of (les Noirs) blacks there, about my experience as black in America, and had me speculate about how and when U.S. race relations might change. Once I was “picked up” on Boul’ Mich by a family-- a couple with three children -- and invited to join them for their Sunday déjeuner in a Latin quarter restaurant. I hardly ate, as I recall, because I had to answer their many questions: “Was slavery still practiced in the American south?” “Could blacks go to restaurants, concerts, films, and museums with whites?” “Were schools and churches segregated? And neighborhoods?” “Could blacks own property?” “What was the president doing about the condition of blacks?”

In gatherings with Nadine’s associates, the discussions were different. They were acquainted with the history of blacks in the U.S. and the political and racial climate in the USA.  Their remarks were about the malevolence of capitalism, threat of McCarthyism, and the works of Richard Wright, exiled in Paris. They adored Mahalia Jackson, lingered over her every phrase, every chord. 

For Wright, Paris was “a perch from which to examine” his native land. Viewed as American, I began to examine the complexity and contradiction of race and citizenship. Feeling “American” in Paris stirred a large measure of my discomfort with my national identity. I was aware of my ambivalence about being a U.S. citizen and my embarrassment about U.S. history.

My sojourn in Paris wasn’t entirely about my time with Nadine. I also did what tourists do: visited Notre Dame, explored the Louvre, Musée de l’Homme, and several other museums. I was photographed with the Eiffel Tower in the background. From a Vassar student, tired and sore from cycling across England, I bought a bicycle – an almost new Rudge. I cycled in and around Paris; and I made a memorable and beautiful day-long solo trip to Chartres. At Nadine’s suggestion I spent a weekend in Burgundy. She said I had to see Dijon and Beaune. But my idea of France was defined by Paris and particularly by scenes in the 5th and 6th arrondissements – their café culture, bookstores, and intense conversations.

In that year, I visited other cities as well: Geneva, Florence (to be sure), Rome and London. Tours, public encounters and personal contacts in each city expanded my notions of the essentials of urban life; and, more personally, the relevance and irrelevance of race.  

Decades of travel abroad, with the advantage of a U.S. passport, have sharpened my perspective on aspects of national character, social class and race. Living in Turkey in the early 1960s, specifically in Eskişehir and Istanbul, where I taught psychology, afforded exposure to an Islamic culture in which gender-segregation and discrimination shaped social, cultural and economic relations. Later in the ‘60s, with my archeologist husband, I traveled in the Caribbean, Mexico, Guatemala, and Brazil. In the ‘70s, I went to China with a group of women architects and city planners. The culturally multi-layered Francophone countries I visited in West Africa, especially Senegal, in the ‘80s had an ethnic appeal. On an educational assignment in apartheid South Africa, I witnessed the ruinous effects of an extremely oppressive racist system. In India, to survey projects sponsored by Oxfam America, I recognized how the complex dimensions of caste, class and religion mattered. I have visited several Western European countries, frequently returning to France, to visit Nadine until her death in 1987.  (I’ve sailed up the Danube and down the Nile.) This abbreviated overview is to say I have seen enough of the world to know where I want to spend my last years and leave my ashes.

I have spent considerably more time in the United States than abroad. I struggled with racism as a graduate student in upstate New York. For many years in liberal New England, I have picketed, marched and taken part in demonstrations for freedom and justice.

I know I am not moving to the Paris of 1952. Paris 2020, now more cosmopolitan, is under clouds of pandemic predicament, socio-economic protests, and now the Black Lives Matter movement. Race and religion are salient aspects of discrimination in contemporary France, where the history of slavery in France is under study; and where liberté, égalité, fraternité ring as paradoxical slogans to people of color in France’s major cities. Since the 1960s, the black and brown population of Paris has increased markedly with arrivals from the Antilles, North Africa and Francophone West Africa. The class resistance of les gilets jaunes is another expression of change in Paris and throughout France.

I try out terms describing my future status: exile, immigrant, expatriate, or simply living abroad. Exile implies having sought refuge in another country, usually for political reasons. As an immigrant, one enters a country with the objective of establishing permanent residence. I have applied for a long stay visa. Expatriates are thought to renounce allegiance to one’s native country. Have I ever felt such allegiance? I’ll be content with living abroad – living in Paris. 

But where in Paris? My son said, “I know your friends live on the Left Bank in the 5th, 6th and 7th, Mom, but you can’t afford to live there.” I have six women friends – French, Swiss and American – all on the Left Bank. He added, “Besides we want you in an apartment within walking distance of our place.” They live in the 9th, near Place Saint Georges. Their market street, rue des Martyrs, gained literary fame in The Only Street in Paris by Elaine Sciolino. My favorite hairdresser, Bettina’s Hair Élégance, is around the corner on rue Clauzel. I plan to revive my association with WICE (Where Internationals Connect in English), where I directed a writing workshop at the turn-of-the-century. I’ll enroll in an intermediate French class, attend public lectures, and join a club for water aerobics.

I was ambivalent about returning to the U.S. in 1963, an epoch comparable to this period, with respect to social and political upheaval. My sentiments, published in the March 1965, Negro Digest, under the caption “Return of a Native Daughter,” included this exchange:

With the inflection of surprise, the young Turkish woman said, “Well, you are the very first American I have ever met who was not looking forward to going home.” Then came her candid second thought, “But you are the first American black I have known.” I considered my bleak past as a Negro in America and the uncertain future for me and my generation of blacks. “Of course, my color has a great deal to do with my reluctance, my dread of returning to the United States.” I did not speak of returning as “going home.” The country had never provided me with the safety, the comfort, the freedom that the word “home” implies.

When I board the flight from Boston to Paris, will I feel I’m going home? No, I will be leaving the country to which I have had an attachment my entire life. It is the country where my first generation-emancipated grandfathers worked at menial jobs to ensure sturdy foundations for my parents. They, in turn, with their best efforts, afforded my son and me the privilege of choosing how and where we want to live. I will leave with gratitude for their sacrifices, carrying baggage loaded with the ongoing struggle against U.S. racism and concern about the nation’s destiny.

Florence Ladd attended public schools in Washington, D.C. She obtained her Bachelor's degree in psychology from Howard University and a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Rochester.

Dr. Ladd has had an extensive career as a teacher and administrator. She has taught at Simmons College, Robert College, the American College for Girls in Istanbul, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She has held deanships at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wellesley College.  Ladd also has a great deal of experience working abroad as she has spent time in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Turkey, China

Florence Ladd is the author of numerous nonfiction and fiction works and has served as the overseer of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as well as a member of the Board of Trustees of Hampshire College. Previously, she served on the board of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Among other honors she received the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from Harvard University in 2018.